ROCKLAND, Maine — The Regional School Unit 13 Board voted Thursday night to postpone for at least one year, a plan to merge the district’s two middle schools.
Board members said the delay was needed because there were too many unanswered questions. Superintendent Lewis Collins had proposed moving all district sixth and seventh grade students to Thomaston Grammar School.
The district would then have moved elementary students in Rockland into the Rockland District Middle School building.
Board Chairwoman Esther “Tess” Kilgour of Rockland acknowledged that the postponement of the merger would forego projected savings of $500,000 for the upcoming year but that she wanted such significant changes to be done with more planning and done right. She pointed out that when the two neighboring school districts — School Administrative Districts 5 and 50 — merged in 2009, the public considered it to be strictly an administrative merger. A year later the district came up with the merger of the high schools that is now Oceanside High School.
“The public felt it had been steamrolled and bamboozled,” Kilgour said.
Merging the two middle schools at this point would reinforce those feelings, she added.
“We keep putting Band-Aids on hemorrhages,” the chairwoman said.
Board member Donald Robishaw Jr. of Rockland said the district needs to look at the overall building needs, so that a move of students is only needed once.
Board member Darryl Sanborn of Thomaston agreed and said he believes that more than $500,000 in savings can be achieved if a comprehensive look at building capacities is undertaken during the next year.
Board member George Emery of St. George said the district needs to also consider the educational needs and impact of consolidating buildings.
Board member Arvilla Collins of Thomaston said her telephone was ringing non-stop before the meeting from people who were concerned the district was moving too quickly with a merger.
A public forum two weeks ago attracted about 100 people with many citizens voicing concern about the move and questioned whether Thomaston Grammar School was adequate for the needs of that many middle school students. Other citizens also said that the board should look at other smaller schools and whether they should remain open before closing another Rockland school.
But other district board members and the superintendent warned the public that delaying the merger would make a difficult budget scenario even more difficult.
Board member William Pearce of Rockland said the $1 million property tax hike that would result if the merger does not occur was not acceptable. He said many people have spoken to him that this magnitude of an increase could not be handled.
Superintendent Collins said the board has to be able to convince the public to approve the budget when it goes to voters in June and that a $1 million tax hike would make that difficult.
Board member Carol Bachofner said she supports a delay in the merger to allow time to do a more comprehensive assessment. She said, however, that she would also not be able to support cutting teaching positions. She said the public needs to make choices when it considers the budget and where it could cut back elsewhere.
“Is it the extra pack of cigarettes, going out to dinner or that shirt?” Bachofner asked.
The vote to delay the merger for at least one year was 9-3 with board members Pearce, Christine Curtis of South Thomaston, and Nancy Jeffers of Rockland voting against a delay.
The board will continue its budget review through early May with a final vote by the board scheduled for May 2. The district budget meeting at which citizens can attend and can set the amount for the budget is May 28. A referendum will then be held June 11 in the six RSU 13 communities to either approve or reject the amount agreed to by people who attended the May 28 session.
The individual impact on communities is not yet known although Rockland’s share of the budget will be increasing based on the district’s cost-sharing formula approved when RSU 13 formed in 2009.